Monday, October 15, 2012

The Last Laugh

The Last Laugh 
by Marty Reeder

I am being dead serious when I say that if this room of aging, cynical seniors before me right now does not laugh, I will be relinquished to a wearisome, wraithlike limbo for time immemorial.

And when I say “dead” serious, I mean that quite literally. In other words: I am dead. Not alive. Kaput. Not just kicking the bucket, but having already roundhoused the bucket and then pulverized it. … You know, dead.

Which brings me back to the room full of seniors with seemingly permanent “just-sucked-on-a-lemon” looks on their faces. This would be a tough crowd for an alive person to get to laugh—imagine how challenging for a dead person. Generally, people don’t laugh at ghosts.

I might have stood a chance if it weren’t for Ricky Morse. You see, most self-respecting limboed spirits hang out in old houses, abandonded buildings, theaters, and—of course—graveyards (so cliché … but guess I’m not your average ghost). Ricky, however, just had to come to this old folk’s home, which I naively thought I would have to myself.

Ricky’s big deal? Well, the running theory for us trapped spirits is that we can’t pass along to the other world until we get some resolution from our previous life. For most wandering specters, that means getting revenge from some slight—you know, like being murdered or something (I guess some people really freak out about homocide these days).

Ricky though? Ricky had lived a long and full life and was in that Green Bramble Retirement Home waiting out the last stages of lung cancer. Then, one of the nurses (newbie, I guess) was in the middle of decorating for a Green Bramble party (which I’ll get to in a minute) when he grumpily demanded a replacement oxygen tank. Well, she switched out his tank, but she got confused and accidentally swapped his oxygen tank for the helium one that she had been using to fill up the balloons.

Innocent mistake, right? Not for Ricky. After he dropped deader than a doornail in a mortuary, Ricky’s spirit refused to recognize that even his kids were relieved for him to be gone. So he got stuck in this netherworld and figured that he had to haunt Green Bramble to get his revenge and subsequent resolution.

As for me, I’ve got no angst to fulfill, just a simple bit of unfinished business. Unlike Ricky, I was in my prime and on the verge of a career as a wildly successful standup comedian. I got my first gig at a party in a local retirement home … want to guess where? Yep, Green Bramble. I was about to deliver some comedic gold when I got interrupted. (Want a preview … er … postview? How about this one: A good pick up line in a retirement home is, “Can I pick you up? No really, I see you’ve fallen and possibly broken a hip. I want to pick you up.” !!!). Unfortunately, just when I was about to knock them dead, one of them beat me to the punch—er punchline. Yep, Ricky.

That’s not to say that people didn’t laugh. We all chuckled when an irritated Ricky, right before keeling over, yelled out, “Wait a second, this isn’t an oxygen tank. If I get my hands on that nurse, I’m going to strangle her with these cords.”—kind of disturbing unless you imagine it as he spoke it: in the most spot on Mickey Mouse voice I’ve ever heard … helium will do that to you.

Well, the crowd sombered up quite a bit when Ricky slumped over and someone cried out for a paramedic. When the ambulance came, it was more of a formality, ‘cause he was long gone.

The event organizer insisted that the show must go on, if only to save money on the impending depression drugs that would result if we didn’t lighten the crowd up a bit. I knew that I couldn’t let this moment pass on (bad pun?) without seizing it. In order to elicit anything more than a cautious smile out of a group of people that just witnessed their peer croak, I decided to pull out my finest material. (I can’t resist sharing it: “What’s the difference between people at an old folk’s home and a troubled kid that tortures animals? One swallows pills and the other peels swallows.” Eh? … admit it, you laughed, even if you didn’t want to.).

Just before speaking, however, the ambulance smashed into a telephone pole just outside the building. Wouldn’t you know it, one of the power lines flew off the pole, through the window, and slammed right into me. Shocking, right? (Okay, even I admit that one was a cheap shot.) Apparently the ambulance guys got spooked when accidentally pushing down on Ricky’s dead chest and forcing out his last breathe, which sounded strangely like the—still helium affected—word “Minnie.” While disappointed at dying, you will never hear me complain that it did not have its aesthetic irony.

It did, however, leave me dead. Not only that, but I never got the first laugh of what I can only modestly assume would have been a magnificent comedic career. I needed resolution. I suppose that is why my spirit was drawn back to Green Bramble instead of moving on to … well, to whatever is beyond spiritual limbo—check your local religion for that tidbit. And that was why, instead of doing as most ghosts did in attempting to scare and exact vengeance upon my living counterparts, I came with the mission to extract that escaped laugh from the denizens of Green Bramble.

Now, you living people all assume being in the world of phantoms is so great and mighty, but it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. When you have a body, you’re in complete control of everything around you (except, come to think of it, flying electrical cords). Without a body, the physical world is fleeting and ethereal. Without a lot of concentration, you find yourself solely in a world of wandering, depressing spirits. So, the very idea of going to Green Bramble and just getting over the intercom and saying, “Hey, Green Bramble residents! Our events coordinator has just brought in some shiftless teenagers to play on our front lawn so everyone can go out and yell at them” or something as equally funny, is not like shooting cats in a barrel. (Wait, how does that idiom go? Never mind.) In fact, to even make your very presence felt, voice heard, or to physically move an object requires all of the concentration and energy in a ghost’s very soul … is that redundant?

The point is that I had a purpose, but not a whole lot of means for doing it. I tried whispering jokes into people’s ears … but with those hearing aids tuned in to frequencies clearly out of the netherworld, that was limiting. I tried making funny designs with the food (bananas and mashed potatoes make for surprisingly comical replicas of popular political figures) but the chef just got credit for a mid-life crisis. I even tried writing funny messages in mirrors while people were showering (I guess, “Water Conservation Is Overrated Anyway” is an acquired humor?) … it only led to more sponge baths.

Still, though, you have to admit that these efforts weren’t a complete waste. Clearly with such a repertoire, I was headed towards eventual success. But then there was Ricky. At first we both flitted in and out enough that we didn’t see much of each other and we spoke less. Ghosts are just as easy to communicate as living people, and even more boring (Nostalgia is a popular theme. If you thought college kids wearing their high school letterman jackets were bad, try the disaffected spiritual has been—they all seem to have been famous millionaires and the most loved people of their time, and if they only had a little bit more time in life, they would have solved most of the world’s worst problems!) Soon, however, it became clear that Ricky and I had opposing purposes and that his efforts were undermining mine.

It’s hard to get your target audience jovial when Ricky is running around breaking vases, slamming doors, whispering threats, and showing up briefly in reflections. I don’t want to be whiny, but honestly, how many stand up comedians have had to engage their audience while a terrorist walks through the crowd with a bomb strapped to his chest? Sure, that opens up the inevitable joke about it being an “explosive” evening, but such a jest would garner a nervous laugh at best.

Things got so bad that the frightened residents started leaving in droves. The retirement home never saw so many occupants vacate the premise since doing so in body bags during the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918. Too soon? Too late? Sorry, time is so relative in limbo. Finally, it got to the point where those that remained were having a meeting with the building operators to vote on whether or not the retirement home should be completely abandoned.

This boded well for Ricky. Clearing out his last place of residence, the place he blamed for his demise, promised to release him from limbo. Me, however? That would completely ruin my chance at resolving my missed opportunity, and I would be floating aimlessly around limbo like a geek going stag at prom for eternity.

Which brings us to the current situation. Some boring old person is in the process of speaking to a bunch of other bored, old people, exploring the depressing options of abandoning the retirement home. Chances for a laugh are as good as the chances of someone’s pacemaker being solar powered. To make things worse, I get some fleeting images of a grinning Ricky working through the crowd, whispering some things, scraping some walkers, and basically taking a victory lap.

While I had prepared for the meeting by drawing a smiley face without dentures on the white board at the room’s entrance, I now see that Ricky found a red marker and made it look like the face was bleeding all over—tacky but effective. Now, the whole atmosphere in the room is heavy and dark, and I feel like I’m getting snuffed out completely.

Just as I’m about to lose hope, however, the one nurse—you know the airhead (oxygen-head?) that accidentally underwrote the undertaker—stands up and starts making a spirited (sorry, had to) defense of the place. She mentions how it was her first job, and the friends she’s made here, and blah blah blah inspirational stuff blah blah.

Well, as difficult as it can be for us ghosts to make ourselves known to the mortal world, it sure helps when we get riled up. And the nurse’s speech really got Ricky’s strictly metaphoric blood boiling. All of the sudden, Ricky manages to short out a circuit, which causes the lights go out. Then he starts moaning and screaming and wailing like he’s some sort of banshee (yeah, you thought the Irish were insupportable alive, try listening to them dead) (was that joke too culturally specific? … look, I’m just throwing out everything I’ve got here).

Everyone in the room starts shuddering and hunching, looking around in complete and absolute terror … and I know that this is the beginning of the end for me … which actually means the beginning of the unending, I suppose. And then Ricky, whose all enjoying this new power trip of his (should I point out the cleverness of my own word play with “power trip” in reference to tripping the circuit? Nah, I’ll let it slide unnoticed), makes himself appear to everyone in a ghostly glow. So he floats there, partially transparent, his dead eyes sunken, his face with the seriousness of a heart attack (something these residents recognize), and then he—theatrically, but effectively—raises his bony-white hands upward, yelling: “You will all die for what you have done to me!”

You’d think that would be the end of things—some ghost appearing out of nowhere, incensed with anger, and screaming about your inevitable extermination. I don’t know if I could have handled it in life, but boy in death does it ever annoy me! All of the sudden, I feel my own indignation rising up within me and I feel enough power to speak and be heard in the world of the living. Mimicking Ricky’s voice the best I can, I venture, “Unless, of course, you haven’t finished your living will … because that would be downright rude!”

At this some of the people take a pause in their fright to look at each other, as if to check to see if they heard correctly. Some adjust their hearing aids.

Ricky suddenly recognizes me in the room and shoots me a glare of death (not meant as literary hyperbole). Then, trying to reassert his control of the situation, follows up with, “You will all pay for your mistreatment of Ricky Morse!”

I’m ready with my rebuttal. “Of course, I’ll bill your government insurance first, but once they’ve paid, and as long as you haven’t reached your deductible for the year, then you will pay—depending on your coverage and preexisting conditions—the full amount!” I’m pretty proud of that one, and by the end of it, I have some people looking at each other as if wondering if this is a prank or something. I decide to push it home some more: “If you’re unsure of your particular coverage, please stay on the line and an operator will be with you shortly.” I give Ricky my best smirk and conclude, “Para Español, marque número dos.”

I can tell that Ricky temporarily considers denouncing me as a false ghost, but he must realize how powerless that would make him sound, so instead he tries for a desperatation move. He floats over to the nurse, and his spectrel hands wrap around her throat.

People gasp at this macabre move, and I have to give Ricky some credit for putting up a good fight. Luckily, however, the nurse is too fascinated by, what she is assuming, is an elaborate hoax to actually consider that this figure in front of her is considering “mortal”cide. I take advantage and call out, “Now, until then, why don’t we all dance? As you can see, I—Ricky—am still just as bad a dancer dead as I was alive.

This jab gets some of the residents who knew Ricky to smile. They’re feeling more relaxed, more convinced this is a show of some sort. If Ricky had teeth, he would have ground them into smithereens at that point. Not ready to give up completely, he now fires out with, “Was everyone just as amused with me when I was choking on helium in this very room?!”

Hmmm. Not a fair shot, I think, appealing to their humanity. If I’m going to get my laugh, I figure I better get it soon. I swing for the fences. “I would hope you were amused, because I’ll tell you: no matter how much helium you pump into someone, it won’t guarantee they’ll go upwards to heaven! … which reminds me, by the way, turns out the man downstairs is NOT a fan of Mickey Mouse, in case you were wondering.”

There’s a pause … I’d almost venture to call it a “deathly” stillness. I can almost feel the people processing the joke. The next thing I know, the nurse yips, or maybe it is a squeak. Then I hear it. Unmistakeable. What follows is a bona fide laugh. At first it comes out slowly, but it gathers momentum and starts to rollick. Within moments the nurse’s laugh is joined by others, all building to a crescendo of powerful mirth.

As the sweet, releasing sound of laughter grows, the scene around me starts to fade. In a moment, I feel myself being transported, lifted away—the whole time accompanied by the ringing of my final piece of the world of the living: a long, luscious, glorious laugh.

©2012 Marty Reeder